Angel’s Walk

aw-sm

Buy now:

amazon

Army Corps of Engineers’ John Campbell Harris has no choice. In order to save Bakersfield, California, from a hundred year flood, he has to raise the height of a local dam in record time. This will flood the homes and destroy the dreams of many locals, including Susannah Day.  Her beloved family home, Angel’s Walk, which also happens to be Harris’s boarding house while in the area, sits on long-designated lake bot­tom.  Harris didn’t plan to fall in love and then betray his lover, but most people don’t. As the El Nino soaks the ground, and the water rises towards her home, Harris makes a choice borne out of that love. But will he be in time?

 

Read a preview:

Chapter 1

 

The ring of the little brass bell hanging on the door ought to have warned Suzanna Day that the Kern River Valley Historical Society museum had an early visitor. The sound might have alerted her if she had been within light-years of the museum. But she was at that moment far, far away—-in the nineteenth century, to be exact.

 

Suzanna was reading a love letter. It was from a slen­der, ribbon-tied packet that was part of a trunkful of memorabilia bequeathed to the society by a distant cousin of Suzanna’s. The letter was from one Herbert W. Potter, written to his young wife Isabelle not long before he suc­cumbed to malaria in the Philippines, during the Spanish-American War. It began sedately: “Dear Mrs. Potter.” And then, as if the emotions that were filling his heart had burst the bonds of propriety, the author continued:

 

My dearest, beloved Isabelle, how I do long to see your face again. There is not much to be found here in the way of tenderness and beauty, though I will not offend your gentle sensibilities or would wish to cause you concern by describing the day-to-day existence of so many men so far from home and in such a state. The very air oppresses. Not a night passes but that I dream of you and of lying with you in the garden when the air is cool and smells of lilacs…

 

 

 

Suzanna was weeping unashamedly, taking care not to drip on the faded brown ink. She gave a loud sniffle that was only partly stifled by the damp tissue ball she held pressed to her nose and started violently when a deep masculine voice immediately responded, “Hello, is any­one here?”

 

Thus rudely returned to the present, Suzanna hurriedly dried her face and began to reassemble the pages scattered across her lap. With a voice only slightly huskier than normal, she replied, “I’ll be right with you. Please feel free to look around.”

 

She was quite invisible to the visitor. She wasn’t entirely sure how she had come to be sitting on the floor behind her desk—-half under it, in fact. It was just that she found it impossible to sit in a chair for any length of time and sooner or later always seemed to find herself in a more comfortable position cross-legged on the floor. While en­grossed in Isabelle Potter’s letter, she had naturally gravi­tated toward seclusion. Now she was mildly surprised to find herself sharing the knee space under her big, old oak desk with a wastebasket and an old pair of shoes.

 

Suzanna was even more startled to look up and find a sun-bronzed face inverted just a few inches from her own. Eyes of a rather ambiguous color stared into hers. It was difficult to tell very much about the upside-down face ex­cept that it was deeply tanned—-even weathered—-and there were paler lines radiating from the corners of the eyes. The eyebrows were golden against that dark skin. And oh, the hair! Now that she had torn her gaze away from those eyes, she could see that the hair was an astonishing red-gold, the color of firelight on polished copper.

 

The upside-down mouth opened to reveal strong, even teeth. “Hello there,” the deep voice said softly. “Is there some reason why you’re hiding under your desk, or are you just naturally shy?”

 

“I’m not hiding,” Suzanna said, a little affronted.

 

“Shy, then.” The smile softened, deepening the eye creases. “You can come on out—-I don’t bite.”

 

“I’m not shy.”

 

The burnished eyebrows shot up. Or was it down? A hand appeared, hovered a moment, and then a finger brushed moisture from her cheek. “I’m truly sorry.” The smile had completely disappeared. “I see I’ve come at a bad time.”

 

Suzanna opened her mouth, wondering why her voice had temporarily deserted her. In its absence all she could do was stare into those puzzling eyes and swallow hard. And then, suddenly conscious of her ridiculous position, she gave herself a little shake and said quickly, “Oh, no. It’s all right, really. I’m sorry—-is it ten o’clock already?” She glanced unseeingly at her watch and would have scrambled out of her hole except that the visitor’s face was still filling part of it. He seemed to be sprawled across her desk and was showing no inclination to move.

 

The hand that had touched her face moved, turning to display a large, serviceable-looking watch in front of her eyes. “Ten minutes past,” the voice informed her. The fingers hovered again, this time touching the tip of her nose and then each still-damp crescent of eyelashes.

 

“Why were you crying?”

 

It was a presumptuous question for a stranger to ask, made even more intimate by his nearness and the almost caressing tone in which he asked it. It seemed almost as if he were sharing her cozy cubbyhole, and she was surprised to hear herself answer in the same kind of throaty murmur, “I was reading a letter…”

 

“Letter?”

 

“A love letter.”

 

“Yours?”

 

Suzanna smiled for the first time, wistfully. “No one writes letters anymore, do they? No, this was from an­other time, another century.”

 

“I’m glad.”

 

Suzanna blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

 

“I’m glad it wasn’t your letter.” The eyes were crin­kling again, and the softness had gone from both voice and smile. The face disappeared momentarily and then reap­peared, attached to a broad-shouldered, deep-chested male body. The stranger now squatted before her, one arm resting across his knee, the other braced against the desk­top just above her head.

 

And now that she was seeing him right side up and all in one piece, Suzanna did feel shy. She saw a face that was devastatingly attractive without being especially hand­some: a high forehead, deep-set eyes of still-undetermined color and a straight, high-bridged nose like those found on certain old coins. The mouth was sen­suous but firm and masculine. It was a nice mouth with a smile that was both assured and irresistible. The body was hard and brawny, with flexed thigh muscles straining the fabric of faded jeans and a soft nest of golden brown curls showing in the open neck of a khaki shirt. He was, in fact, just the kind of brash, charming, overwhelmingly mascu­line man that had always made Suzanna feel intimidated. She was completely out of her depth with this man, and she knew it. She could feel her natural poise evaporate, leaving her embarrassed and flustered.

 

“Hey, I thought you said you weren’t shy,” the man said, touching her cheek with the backs of the fingers of one hand.

 

“I’m not,” Suzanna asserted, refusing to drop her eyes. “Just embarrassed to death. This is a very silly position to be caught in. I think I’m entitled to blush.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever held a con­versation with a beautiful woman under a desk before, but it’s not silly. A novelty, maybe, but hey, you can come out if it’s making you uncomfortable.”

 

“No, I can’t,” Suzanna pointed out rather breathlessly. “You’re in my way.”

 

“Oh, I guess I am at that. Here—-” He took her firmly by the elbows and drew her to her feet, then held her steady while she brushed and shook the long skirt of her yellow calico apron down around her ankles. His hands fit warmly over the rounds of her shoulders.

 

“Thank you,” she murmured, the breathlessness even more evident. She shook back the thick, toffee-colored hair that had fallen forward over her shoulders, and lifted her chin, forcing herself to meet the man’s admiring gaze with one that was cool and businesslike. “Is there something I can help you find? Did you come with a specific question or just to learn some of our local history? We have several rather good books on local history if you—-”

 

“Actually,” the man said with an odd tinge of regret, “I’m looking for a Miss Suzanna Day. Is she in today?” He reached into the pocket of his shirt and took out a piece of paper, consulted it unnecessarily and held it out to her. She ignored it, too surprised to even take a look.

 

“I’m Suzanna Day,” she said, puzzled.

 

It was the stranger’s turn to look startled. He shook his head and asked incredulously, “You’re Tony O’Brian’s wife’s cousin? The one with the big old house? Lives with an old—-a schoolteacher? Rents rooms?”

 

“Well,” Suzanna said with an uncharacteristic touch of asperity, “you seem to know quite a lot about me.” It was upsetting to think that this strange man had been discuss­ing her with members of her own family and even more unsettling to realize that for Tony to have mentioned her name to a stranger at all, he would have to trust him. Keeping that thought firmly in mind, she curbed her irri­tation and asked politely, “How may I help you?”

 

The man was still staring at her in a way that was mak­ing her very uncomfortable. A thought struck her. Could Tony and Meg possibly be matchmaking again? It wouldn’t be the first time a well-meaning member of her large and loving family had tried to set her up with some­one. But no, surely not. They all knew her much too well to ever imagine she could be interested in someone like this super-macho jock!

 

The stranger seemed to collect himself, though he didn’t abandon his embarrassingly thorough appraisal. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head again. “I just didn’t expect you.”

 

“Well, you asked for Suzanna Day. I’m Suzanna Day. Is there something I can do for you?”

 

The man’s lips curved in a slow smile, and he mur­mured, “I sure hope so. Oh, I do hope so.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

He laughed out loud, a sound of such lighthearted good humor that Suzanna had to struggle to reinforce her de­fenses. He seemed almost like two people; just when she was developing a good solid distrust of all the high-voltage charisma, he’d hit some kind of dimmer switch. Now his smile was soft, not suggestive, and his voice was as gentle as it had been when he’d asked about her tears.

 

“I’m sorry. I came expecting an old schoolmarm smell­ing of lavender, and instead I’ve found Alice in Wonder­land.”

 

There was a little silence. And then, as he seemed about to touch her again, Suzanna retreated behind a counter and became very busy straightening piles of brochures. The stranger followed, leaning his elbows on the counter.

 

“I think I’d better explain,” he said gently, still smil­ing. “Your cousin Tony O’Brian sent me. He said you might have rooms for rent.”

 

The last was a question. “I’m sorry,” Suzanna said without stopping what she was doing. “You’ve been mis­informed. I have no rooms for rent.”

 

“Oh, come on,” the man said with an engaging smile. “Tony said you had half a dozen empties. All I need is one.”

 

Suzanna fixed him with a cold stare. “Contrary to what you may have been told, my home,” she said with delib­erate emphasis, “is not a rooming house.”

 

“Ah, but you do sometimes rent rooms. Tony told me so. In fact, you have an old schoolteacher living there now, haven’t you?”

 

“Mrs. Hopewell,” Suzanna informed him frigidly, “is retired, not old. And yes, I do sometimes rent rooms. And no, I do not have any available at this time.”

 

“I see.” There was a pause. “Look, Sue.” She stiff­ened at the unauthorized use of her first name, a nick­name no one ever used. His hand moved unhurriedly, closing over hers and pinning it on top of a pile of pam­phlets describing a nature walk through a wildlife pre­serve. “Sue, have you ever lived in a motel for any length of time? I’m going to be here awhile. I don’t know how long, but it’s too damn long to stay in a motel.”

 

His smile had vanished, and his eyes had an unexpected appeal. She shook her head slowly, transfixed against her will.

 

“Look, my credentials are good. I even have refer­ences. Your cousin Tony’ll vouch for me. I’m with the Corps of Engineers. I’ll be working with Tony at the dam.” The smile was back, radiating charm that could be measured in megawatts. “I’m just a harmless civil ser­vant, swear to God.”

 

Suzanna opened her mouth and looked down at the hand that covered hers. It was warm and brown and dusted with golden hairs. A small white scar angled across one knuckle. Her heart, she suddenly realized, was pounding at much too fast a pace.

 

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t—-” she began with deter­mination, and was interrupted by the sound of the en­trance bell. She cleared her throat, murmured, “Excuse me,” and gratefully withdrew her hand, hurrying to greet the newcomers, a middle-aged couple in Bermuda shorts.

 

While she guided the couple around the museum with what was probably a little more than her customary en­thusiasm, her eyes kept straying to the golden-haired man as he wandered among the displays, his thumbs hooked in his back pockets. She stayed with the tourists as long as she possibly could, fully aware that she was using them for protection against him. She never had been equipped to deal with his type of man and never would be.

 

His type. In high school that would have meant the campus big shot—-the football star, the escort of cheer­leaders and prom queens, the type girls like Suzanna got terrible, unrequited crushes on. The type who never no­ticed that she was alive, which was probably just as well, because if one of them had noticed she was alive, she would probably have expired from shyness. She’d have been tongue-tied, red faced and sweaty palmed, just as she was right now.

 

Suzanna really wasn’t shy. She’d grown up in this valley in the southern Sierra Nevadas, a member of one of the first families to settle permanently in the valley, turning to cat­tle and hay raising after the gold fever had cooled. It was a large, loving and well-respected family. She had been taught from infancy to walk tall, speak clearly and look people in the eye. She had sung solos in church since the age of five and could, if called upon to do so, speak with poise and grace in front of any group of people. She en­joyed and got along well with people, especially the very old and the very young. But there was an element of nat­ural reserve in Suzanna that made it hard for her to form deep friendships. She had always received all the love and emotional support she needed from her family.

 

In a quiet way, Suzanna had been popular in school. She’d managed to get good grades consistently without making an issue of it and always took part in a wide vari­ety of extracurricular activities. She had never dated much, though she had been comfortable enough with boys she could call friends—-the class clowns, the brains, the ones people now seemed to call “nerds.” Some of her best friends, she recalled, had been nerds.

 

Just as long as they touched no chord of excitement in her, as long as there was no trace at all of that pulse-quickening awareness of boy-girl differences, she was fine. But there was that particular kind of boy whose glance was too knowing, whose stance was too suggestive, whose whole being radiated sexual awareness. Sometimes they were sullen and smoldering, with an aura of wildness and danger; sometimes they were brash and outgoing and full of effortless charm. The effect they had on Suzanna was always the same: they made her cruelly aware of her in­adequacies.

 

Oh, she knew very well that she would never be beauti­ful. She supposed she might be called attractive, but she was so hopelessly average. She had medium-brown hair and quite ordinary blue eyes, unremarkable features and complexion. Her body was average, too, both in size and structure—-completely unspectacular. She wasn’t, and never would be, the kind of woman “his type” was inter­ested in. She had a reasonably healthy sense of humor but lacked the capacity for the kind of light, frivolous verbal games “his type” seemed to initiate. She was no good at parties or small talk or casual flirtation. She wasn’t, she acknowledged with a sigh, sexy.

 

Now, watching the bright-haired stranger prowl her quiet world with that slightly rolling gait very physical men so often seem to have, she was reminded that everything she hadn’t been at seventeen she still wasn’t at twenty-seven.

 

So why in the world was this man wasting his charm on her?

 

The door closed behind her tourists. Suzanna retreated once more behind the counter and watched with a curious mixture of apprehension and amusement as he strolled toward her. It struck her suddenly that with his bright hair he looked like a male bird displaying plumage. And that, she realized, was probably the answer to her question. He was male; she was female. Flirting was just an automatic, instinctive action on his part. He probably would have behaved the same way even if she’d turned out to be the old schoolteacher he’d expected to find.

 

That knowledge was unexpectedly depressing, but it did help to restore her poise. She felt quite calm now. Po­litely, even kindly, she said, “I’m sorry. I mustn’t keep you waiting any longer. I don’t envy you, living in a motel, but I’m afraid I can’t rent you a room. I’m truly sorry; it’s just not possible.” She gave him a courteous smile.

 

He cocked his head and made a disappointed clicking sound with his tongue. “Your final word?”

 

“I’m afraid so. I do hope you enjoy your stay here in the valley, Mr., um… Please feel free to look around. I really must get back to work.”

 

Frowning, he patted the pockets of his shirt, then took his wallet out of a hip pocket and extracted a business card, which he extended toward Suzanna. “Me, too,” he said with a rueful smile. “It was nice meeting you, Suzanna Day.” His eyes held hers for a moment, and she could al­most believe he meant it. He seemed about to offer her his hand but changed his mind and touched his temple in a kind of salute instead. “Very nice.” He turned and strode quickly to the door.

 

“Uh, nice meeting you, too, Mr.—-” She glanced down at the card in her hand and hastily added, “Harris.” But the door had already closed, the tinkling of the bell con­cluding the whole unsettling episode.

 

* * *

 

John Campbell Harris, known to most people as Cam, leaned on the steering wheel of the green four by four he’d requisitioned from corps headquarters. He looked at the long, low, multi-doored wing of his motel, fingering the plastic rectangle attached to his door key. They all looked alike, these motels in out-of-the-way places.

 

He sighed and got out of the pickup. The initial thrill of excitement he’d felt facing this newest challenge had re­ceded. Now he was merely hot and tired and looking for­ward to a shower. Flinging his denim jacket over one shoulder, he stepped over the log that separated his park­ing spot from his door and fitted the key into the lock. He opened the door cautiously a few inches, then stuck his head through and peered into the dimness. “Hey, Cat?” he called softly.

 

There was a small purr in reply, and a lumpy shadow on the foot of the bed stirred, one front paw shooting out in a brief stretch. A slender gray cat uncoiled itself and jumped to the floor with a faint thud. Cam slipped into the room and closed the door behind him, tossing the key onto the dresser and the jacket onto a chair. The cat was now arching ecstatically across his pant leg, and he stopped to fondle the dainty triangular head. The cat pushed against his hand, touching his palm with her cold wet nose, and then leaped back up onto the bed, posing gracefully and blinking at him, her expression one of extreme patience.

 

“All right, don’t nag,” Cam said aloud, unzipping the large canvas tote bag he’d used to smuggle her into this room the night before. He took out a small can of cat food and an opener and kicked the bag back behind a chair. He performed the necessary maneuvers required to open the can under the cat’s critical gaze, then stirred the contents with a forefinger and set it on the floor. The cat looked unimpressed, dropped daintily to the floor and ap­proached the can with unhurried dignity, pausing to rub perfunctorily against Cam’s shins before settling herself down to dinner.

 

Cam hauled his shirt up his back and over his head on the way into the bathroom and in a few seconds was cool­ing himself thankfully under a stinging, tepid spray. When Cam came out of the bathroom, the cat was sitting on the dresser in front of the mirror, washing. Cam paused in the act of vigorously towel drying his hair and said aloud, “Now, who are you primping for? You got plans for the evening I don’t know about?” The cat replied with one of her interrogative chirrups, and Cam crossed to the bed, piled both pillows against the headboard and lay down naked on the spread. He gave a massive sigh and closed his eyes, lacing his fingers behind his head. Silence settled over the room, broken only by the soft sounds of the cat’s grooming.

 

“Cat,” he said softly, “this is going to be a bad one. There’s only one way to solve this mess, and people are going to get hurt.” The cat didn’t reply, and after a mo­ment he went on, his voice a dry murmur. “You know, I think—-” He stopped suddenly. “I’m going nuts, talking to a cat.” He stretched out an arm to touch a button on his phone and then relaxed, listening to Bruce Spring­steen sing about fast cars, lonely roads and dusty blue-collar towns.

 

I think I’ve spent too many nights in too many hotel rooms in too many Podunk towns looking for solutions to other people’s screw-ups, hurting people I’ve never met and will never see again.

 

Lord, he was tired of motel rooms! With his eyes closed, he tried to remember the subject of the pictures on the wall, the color of the curtains, the bedspread. Burnt orange, with bullfighters? He opened his eyes. Wrong. Brown plaid, with bucking broncos.

 

Empty rooms, standard fixtures, sanitized toilets, hard, empty beds. Not that his bed had to stay empty any longer than he wanted it to, he acknowledged somewhat smugly. There seemed to be plenty of action in town, judging from the noise he’d heard coming from that honky-tonk just down the road last night. And this was Friday. In a few hours the local clientele would be augmented by the week­end horde of tourists from L.A., including lots of tanned and tawny ladies ripe for the illusory freedom of a week­end fling. They’d be wearing short cutoff jeans and tank tops with no bras. They’d be eager, attractive and very energetic. Their flesh would be firm and sun-warm and taste of salt. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine one in the curve of each arm, pressed hard against his body, and when the fantasy failed to produce even the faintest tingle in his loins, he made a disgusted noise and swung his feet to the floor. He stabbed at his phone, cutting off the too-lonely wail of a saxophone, and reached for his clothes.

 

When he was dressed, he reached for the phone and touched in the corps headquarters number.

 

“Get me Tony,” he said tersely to the girl who an­swered. “This is Harris.” After a brief wait he responded, “Yeah, Tony—-Cam here. Listen, I’ve been going over those stress-test figures. I’ll need to take a look at some core samples, but I believe that spillway can come up a good six feet.” He listened, tightening his jaw against the entreaty in the park manager’s voice. “Yeah, well, some­body usually does get hurt in a situation like this. But you tell me how I can balance a few marinas and some farm­land against a whole city. Most of the land we’d flood is designated parkland, anyway. Those people knew the risk when they built there. …Yeah, I’ll have the final plans ready by Monday. I know it’s moving fast. The fact is, we haven’t got a lot of time here, Tony. At the rate that snow pack is melting, I figure Memorial Day is probably our deadline. And if we should get a worst-case scena­rio… That’s right. The worst thing that could happen would be for a tropical storm to hunker down off Baja Califor­nia and dump a warm rain on top of that snow. …Yeah, in the millions, at least. Okay, see you Monday. Oh, hold on a minute.” He reached into his pocket for a pencil and drew a piece of motel stationery toward him. “Listen, can you give me directions to your cousin’s place? Yeah, that’s right—-I missed her at the museum. Okay, got it. Thanks. Yes, I hope so, too. I’ve had all I want of this damned motel.”